His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburg, established the Duke of Edinburg’s Awards in 1956.1 Subsequently, his son Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex has taken on some of the Duke’s duties and, near the end of a July, 2008 tour in Canada, he accepted an invitation to attend a fund raiser for the Awards at Stratus, a winery near Niagara-on-the-Lake in the heart of Ontario’s wine producing region.
In line with many new wineries, Stratus is eco-friendly, producing limited quantities of wine based on the true gravity-flow system. Since its founding in 2000, Stratus has acquired a reputation for high-end wines created under the direction of Loire Valley native, J-l Groux.2
Thirty people paid $10,000.00 a plate for the pleasure of dining with Prince Edward and Chef Michael Stadtlander was asked to prepare a ‘princely dinner’.
A few years ago Stadtlander was named the world’s ninth best chef by a panel of British culinary experts. A wonderful honor indeed, particularly for a chef whose restaurant, Eigensinn Farm, is in an old farm house almost three hours by car north of Toronto. Eigensinn Farm has a global reputation and its patrons care not a whit for its isolation. Michael decorated his dining room with as much care as he prepares pork, but still, it surprises new customers who arrive with images of posh French country inns in mind. Michael’s kitchen, a culinary landmark, rivals the decor of his dining room.3
Stadtlander, a good friend, had recommended me for the event’s purveyor of music. When the call came, I was delighted and ambivalent; a drummer providing music for a $10,000.00 a plate royal dinner? But Stratus evidently trusted Michael and suggested I set up in the vineyard, a few discreet yards from the patio dining table, far enough to be heard, but not close enough to intrude. (Any wedding harpist understands the role.)
I asked my friend, recording engineer and percussionist, Ray Dillard to join me. We would play quietly and sparsely on bells and gongs, but add occasional drum beats for frisson. It was fun, all of it, even with the intrusion of the worst storm I’d ever experienced. A tornado from some ring of Dante swooped in, but was avoided, thanks to the Stratus early warning weather radar. Michael’s apprentices carried our instrument ladened racks through the loading dock door into the winery Press Alley. I lived on a farm north of Toronto for twenty years, and had never experienced winds and pitch black skies such as these. Within minutes, the fund raiser switched to plan B.
The Prince arrived, met and spoke with the dinner party.4 With the help of servers from restaurants in the area, the meal was a spectacular success. During the amuse-bouche, the winds howled and the rains really did beat a tattoo. But the storm’s fury was matched by its brevity and when singers from the Shaw Festival began their dessert selections, all was calm. (They opened with Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”. From my distant perch, I smiled ruefully for my Nexus colleague William Cahn, who declares this his most disliked song.)
Ray and I heard the Prince of Wessex’s friendly voice signaling the evening’s close, but, given the Press Alley’s cavernous acoustic, we understood nary a word. We continued to play until the only sounds were ours. Then I went forward, past the kitchen where the ‘help’ was cleaning up, and onto the patio where Michael was relaxing, alone with a glass of Stratus white. I joined him for a few moments and then returned to pack up. I had not met or seen the Prince, nor had I drunk a glass of wine or eaten anything Michael had prepared. Oh well. With visions of frocked Esterházy musicians in our heads, Ray and I drove back to Toronto.
1. See: WWW.dofe.org
2. See: WWW.stratuswines.com
4. Prince Edward, the third son and fourth child of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburg, is now seventh in line of succession to the throne of England.
Unless otherwise credited, all photos are by the author.